Monday, January 28, 2013

Book: Garlic and Sapphires - The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise

I cannot remember having savored reading a book this much. I picked up this book at the height of my 'food blogging' days. (Have I ever explained that? It was a private joke among friends, a dig at self-important bloggers. Whenever we were out, I'd stop everyone from eating—they have to keep still and watch me photograph their food. It started out as a joke although eventually, I did blog about the restaurants to fully play the part. My friends were nice enough to play along that later, they would actually remind to take pictures or else, they won't start eating. *I just have to say, I loooove my friends.*

And then I partly joked on Twitter about how serious I was going to be with my reviews: I'm not writing about a restaurant until I've visited it at least thrice. Well, look at what that got me: 0 reviews since, lol. That simply means I've been eating in a lot of new restaurants—which is true—and I've been dependent on my staples, such as Max's, McDonalds, and Jollibee, lol.

Aaanyway (what an intro)... so yeah, I've started to take my food reviews seriously that in December, I decided to check out the available food literature in Fully Booked. Ruth Reichl's Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise is what jumped at me. It's one of the best and entertaining books I've ever read.

It's easy to get to know her: she's very accessible, which is in fact, one of the reasons why she earned a circle of haters early on in her stint as the new food critic of The New York Times. Under her helm, she shifted attention to what was then a burgeoning, yet ignored, underworld of global cuisine (think Korean, Indian, and Chinese), which was a huge departure from the point of view of her predecessor, who was a vanguard of classic European food. That alone was very enlightening for me, to think of food as a global industry with an economic and social impact, in the same manner that Devil Wears Prada, the film, gave similar credit to fashion.

Today, Asian restaurants are very much a staple in cosmopolitan cities around the world. (And I suspect, Ruth had a hand in it.) In Manila, Asian food franchises are becoming de rigeur. (In my mind, I was trying to argue that the concept of an Asian restaurant franchise in Manila was unthinkable a decade ago, but I've no data to back it up*. I'm thinking along the lines of Chowking and Thai-in-a-Box versus actually bringing in say, Bon Chon or Bulgogi Brothers, which to me, is more a validation of our Asian neighbors' cuisine. We were then more welcoming of Western, mostly fast food, joints.)

* * * * 
*Texted Pam for her opinion: 

Pam: "I think it's because we follow worldwide trends rin and Asian food has boomed in the past years. Bon Chon (and Korean fried chicken) had been a hit in New York for several years before someone brought it here. Parang it had to be validated muna by the Western market. Same thing with the frozen yogurt companies—sa Korea nagsimula tapos sumikat sa States bago dinala dito. Ganun din yung milk tea places. I also think it's because Pinoys are traveling more... they have more exposure in terms of seeing what's out there.

"I'm happy we have Wee Nam Kee, J.Co, and all these Asian grown restos in the country pero pangarap ko talaga is to see our homegrown restos branch out naman and enjoyed by a more international market."

We had a far longer conversation until she eventually mentioned that she recently found a food book that she had been hunting—it turned out to be Garlic and Sapphires!

* * * * 

Her accessibility is such that she goes out of her way to disguise herself so she may report on a dining experience that would be closer to that of the ordinary person. (The disparity between the experience of an average consumer and a New York Times critic is worlds apart: in one instance, the King of Spain—certainly not ordinary—was made to wait at the bar for a table, while Ruth was immediately ushered in.) Hence, she writes a review, which the average reader may relate to even if it’s about a three-star Michelin restaurant.

I also learned how dining out can be a political exercise, more so in a city whose denizens rule the world. I don't know about the high-end restaurants here (but I sure hope it is not the case, because hello, this is Manila—no restaurant can ever be that self-important), but the disguised Ruth had to contend with waiters and sommeliers who ignore her, and tables meant to hide her from the rest of distinguished patrons. I also learned that restaurants can be sexist.

Even wine selection is an art—a patron and a sommelier can spend the first few minutes volleying questions to determine if the diner is worthy of special attention. Should you immediately agree with the wine recommendation, you may be regarded as a pushover and be relegated among les miserables.

Those stories were definitely frustrating to read about. Since this was written in the late ‘90s, the book did make me think about how such pompous restaurants would react to the food culture today, specifically, one that involves Instagram. As it turned out, they did not disappoint: see Restaurants Turn Camera Shy.

However, there are also the heartwarming stories—especially when she digs deep and talks about her own personal relationship with food—and glowing reviews that wax poetic about glorious dishes and which eventually made me so hungry at inconvenient times of the day. Consider yourself warned :-)

Monday, January 21, 2013

Wine: 2011 Santa Rosa Shiraz-Malbec

One of my New Year's resolutions is to try a bottle of wine each month, and for January, I picked the 2011 Santa Rosa Shiraz-Malbec (Argentina). On hindsight, I realized it was a bad choice for a novice like me since I'm not educated enough to have appreciated the combination of the blend. I should have first gone with either Shiraz (my original plan was to get an Australian, for which it is famous, but I balked at the price, lol) or Malbec, both of which share a similar profile: medium- to full-bodied, fruity and spicy, and high in tannin.

The 2011 Santa Rosa Shiraz-Malbec has a deep cherry color, with a velvety mixture. While aromatic—I imagined a plum and blackberry vineyard* heavily covered with foliage in the nighttime, when the earth, now moist, is cooling from the summer day—the intensity is light and you'll have to bring your glass closer to your nose if you want to get a whiff.

The taste, initially full-bodied, turned soft and smooth as I gave it a whirl in my mouth—its spiciness and tannin (that bitter quality of reds) had a short finish. I did not find it acidic at all. 

Nevertheless, it is still formal enough to be paired with an entrée, preferably dinnertime and specifically, with red meat. I tried it which chicken, and the wine easily overwhelmed my meal. (I then peppered my chicken with... um, pepper, in my attempt to harmonize the two—and it worked! So I think this wine would complement saucy Spanish dishes (mine was afritada; it would probably clash with the more complex Indian or Thai cuisine.) With beef, it was perfect; I loved how it added seriousness to my corned beef, lol.

I wouldn't recommend this as a gift to your host only because it can be very imposing, especially if you're not aware of the menu and you expect it to be opened immediately.

*I labored to find a Filipino equivalent since I found my sentence pretentious, but I couldn't. :-P

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Film review: Les Miserables

I am not saying this just to be different or to go against the tide of popular opinion but I thought Anne Hathaway's Fantine was one dimensional, and I'm not sure it was her fault.

Of course, you'd argue: she had lost her job and she had a daughter to raise—she was meant to be desperate through and through—but the film version of Les Miserables decided to switch the order of I Dreamed a Dream, where she muses about her past, and Lovely Ladies, where she transitions from virtuous girl to a destitute. And so Anne approached I Dreamed differently from the musical: wherein Fantine on stage had the benefit of showing that transition (ergo, range) and giving us a glimpse of that young girl whose sin was that she fell in love with the wrong man before "it all went wrong," Anne had little choice but to commit to a Fantine who's no longer human but a rag doll from early on.

I was hoping that even though her Fantine had been drawn of hope in Lovely Ladies, Anne would still give a us a flicker of that happy girl who enjoyed and made the most of her youth in I Dreamed ("And I was young and afraid... no song unsang, no wine untasted"), but alas, she attacks the song with such pasan ko ang daigdig complex. The interpretation was flat; she made absolutely no room for nostalgia in the first half of the song—I suppose given the change in sequence, there was danger of turning Fantine into a bi-polar, but then, under those circumstances, who wouldn't snap?

To be fair, Les Miserables has to be judged on how it translated the material from stage to film, hence I won't touch on the dodgy and sometimes ambiguous plot. The novel by Victor Hugo was 531,000 words and lyrics can only do so much—one depends on the actors to fill the gap: the audience must feel that which cannot be expressed in words. Unfortunately, the songs, interpreted by actors, lacked the gravitas that I had gotten used to hearing from the musical's soundtrack and videos.

At first, I thought it may be impossible—the film version recorded the songs live, so the result is inevitably raw and visceral. (I think that may partly explain the mostly tight shots; there was certainly a disconnect when the camera soars to shoot panoramic and sweeping views and the voice could not compete with such majesty.) But then I was pleasantly surprised to see Colm Wilkinson, the original Jean Valjean, in the role of Bishop Myriel, who savors each lyric by rounding his lips—I can almost visualize the words titillated by them pillows—and still, the words surrendered to the air and how they resonated so deep and beautiful: gravitas was possible. (Unfortunately, I'm hard pressed to give the same praises to another stage alum, Samantha Barks as Eponine.)

Hugh Jackman is a fairly excellent singer, hence, I did not understand why some of his songs were octaves lower than the original. The effect for me was that his interpretation of Valjean's Soliloquy (What Have I Done?) was contemplative and tender—which, don't get me wrong, is a gallant approach and authentic too—but I guess my personal preference was someone who spewed shame and self-reproach.

But oh my god, what did Russell Crowe do to Stars? :-( In the musical, Stars, on its own, was enough to provide range and depth to Javert's character: he is puritanical in his morals and unremitting in his piety. It was such a shame given that the film was stunning in its visual direction for Javert: he speaks from the pulpit—high atop the parapet of what I assume to be the Notre Dame cathedral, such as in Stars—addressing those beneath his feet. (A recurring theme for Javert, from the opening scene, to Stars, to his final scene.)

Unfortunately, Stars, such a powerful and unrelenting song, was reduced to a whimper under Russell.

Another disappointment was On My Own; the film and Samantha Barks practically relied on the downpour to convey Eponine's emotion (too literal at that). Though I did like Samantha, whenever she was in a trio with Marius and Cosette.

Among the lead actors, there is one who I thought was perfect in both acting and singing and it is Eddie Redmayne as Marius. Marius in the musical—at least as far as the anniversary concerts are concerned—is almost a parody of that typical teenybopper in love, but in the film, Eddie is a man. Empty Chairs at Empty Tables is usually a song I'd fast-forward on my cassette tape, but with his rendition, there's melancholy, guilt, and pain. His nuanced interpretation displayed a range of emotions which I thought Anne didn't deliver in I Dreamed. I also liked how giddy he was in A Heart Full of Love; it was one of the few, welcome high points (along with Helena Bonham Carter and Sascha Baron Cohen's Thenardiers) in a film burdened with such pallor and despair.

Overall, it was okay but I wasn't exactly blown away. There were moments I was on the edge of the seat—I was riveted sure, but it was mostly because I was rooting for the actors to hit those notes and overwhelm me with emotion, but alas, by the end of the film, my eyes were still dry.

Rating: 7/10

Monday, January 14, 2013

Six degrees of five films

Having a debilitating cold since Friday, I missed seeing Life of Pi with friends on Saturday (I may need to set a date with myself), but nevertheless, it was a good weekend of movies for me. I saw Precious, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Help, Midnight in Paris, and Silver Linings Playbook.

I'm presently reading To Kill a Mockingbird—a book which I'm finding to be one of the best ones I've ever read—so I was pleasantly surprised to find that it figured in Wallflower, as the first book assignment in freshman English class; and in The Help, as one of books owned by a white journalist who writes about the plight of Black American maids in the ‘60s. (This says much about Mockingbird, whose values transcend generation, race, and occupation.)

Wallflower is a beautiful movie but I feel like I'm too old for its general theme (however I hated admitting that :-P). Parang sad na if I'd still wallow about missed opportunities (unless it's an opportunity to make money), and wax poetic about a hand brushing on my leg, or feeling the wind on my face as the song plays on the radio. (Lakas maka-Taylor Swift.) However, it has a darker, thought-provoking theme that explores an introvert's struggle with love and abuse, which I won't expound on as it is a spoiler. (8/10)

The Help is unthinkable in its depiction of racial discrimination in the US as recently as the '60s, but what's more horrifying is that it is anchored on true events. I like that it is not sloshed in sentimentality and melodrama, as one would expect in an Oscar contender (2011); instead, we see a tempered yet assured climax, with a welcome comedic approach that would have otherwise made this a gut-wrenching film.  (9/10)

Gut wrenching is Precious, which details the continuing challenges of Black Americans, though it's not so much about the discrimination they experience from society but the scourge of self-destruction and poverty they bring upon themselves. (That's what the film presented; I'm aware that these challenges are not exclusive to one's color.) I had a stream of tears by the time Monique finished her monologue toward the end. It is another unthinkable depiction of life, and again, horrifying in its reality. (8/10)

On a lighter note, Midnight in Paris by Woody Allen is a comedy that weighs in on the beauty of nostalgia. A charming screenwriter, played by Owen Wilson, travels to the French city and finds himself in the company of Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Luis Buñuel, and other great artists. (I will never forget Buñuel for Un Chien Andalou, which is a staple in film class. Hence, it was with sadness that after watching Midnight, I learned on Twitter that my one and only film teacher, Ellen Paglinauan, passed away that day.) Literature, film, and art students would have a heyday getting the many private jokes and nuisances abound in this movie.  (8/10)

Hemingway also appears in Silver Linings Playbook, courtesy of his novel A Farewell to Arms, the book that drives a hot OCD patient (Bradley Cooper) raging mad at 3 in the morning. Two young adults with mental illnesses make a fascinating study on dating without the flirtation, the white lies, peacock-parading vanity, and false appearances. It's cute but with the number of nominations it received from award-giving bodies this year, I expected way much more. (7/10)

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

"A broken body isn’t a broken person"

I never truly understood what it means to have spirit until I watched this video:

Cross-country skier Janine Shepherd hoped for an Olympic medal—until she was hit by a truck during a training bike ride. She shares a powerful story about the human potential for recovery. Her message: you are not your body, and giving up old dreams can allow new ones to soar.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

My December books

I was able to finish reading two books in December: Grace: A Memoir by Grace Coddington and The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. Both are elegant and charming and certainly offer life lessons we could all live by: having quiet dignity and savoring little, everyday pleasures.

* * * *

I'm amazed by how Grace was able to write a memoir without really writing one: save for revealing her personal history, I feel that has still kept the nosy reader at bay. There were no washing of dirty linens in public; in one chapter, she writes about her cats. This self-consciousness (well, it is an autobiography) stemming from her shyness and misgivings about the public spotlight has prevented her from truly pouring it all. She glosses over her car accident, separations, and personal struggles (although, we do find out about her allergies). Instead, she entertains the reader by contextualizing the role of fashion and its players—designers, models, photographers—from about five decades ago. Alas, her modesty doesn't offer readers a chance to truly understand her present work as creative director for Vogue: her portfolio, included in the end pages of the book, are breathless but aside from relaying personal anecdotes surrounding the photos, the average reader won't know how it is to be truly creative. Still, it's an elegant read.

* * * * 

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a two-person narrative: one is the voice of an intelligent and enlightened concierge who must keep up the appearance of your stereotypical concierge by dumbing herself down; and the other is that of a supposedly bright girl who cannot stand her almost aristocratic life. (I used "supposedly" because I have problems with the author appointing the girl as extremely smart. She's polite, well-behaved, liberal, and left-leaning for sure, but her philosophical musings were, to me, pretentious and embarrassing. I'm not sure if it was a translation problem; the novel is originally in French.)

The two of them go through life, making profound observations about everyday objects, such as camellias, summer rain, and tea, and they are both tortured because they cannot let the world know how awesome and fabulous they truly are—until a rich, handsome Japanese dude, who is totally comfortable about how rich and handsome he is (YES, FINALLY!), coax them out of their shells and literally, their respective apartment units.

That's about the only time that I started enjoying the book—unfortunately, it was down to the last 50 pages at that point—when the protagonists have finally ridden themselves of the stick up their cultured asses. And then of course, something happens, which initially, was sad, but which later, I found ridiculous and funny. (To quote Alanis Morissette, "It's like rain on your wedding day." It wasn’t ironic, but a bummer.)

Nevertheless, I loved reading how they enjoyed simple pleasures. There were moments of beauty in how it described the art of making tea, or the exhilaration in flowers and rain, and allowing oneself to fall in love.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

My 2013 resolutions

First, here's how I fared the previous year:

  • Don't sweat the small stuff––Avoid stress by all means. Online, this means not being part of the lynch mob, especially if I'm not being part of the solution.
Done. I can't even remember being ruffled by anything this year, as in nada. This went as far as accepting the Philippines' loss in Miss Universe very gracefully, lol. But seriously, I haven't been snarky; I've been very calm about hotly debated issues, such as the RH bill; I didn't devote a single tweet about #amalayer girl; I calmly accepted the headache that is Globe Telecom. Even my latest breakup was (on my end) wonderfully Zen. What this has thought me is that: there is a bigger world other than mine; and it certainly does not revolve around me or my opinions.

  • Write letters once a month––it doesn't even have to be handwritten

  • Continue reading one new book each month
Done––sort of. I wasn't able to finish a book in April, though I made up for it in June. Will correct it this year :-)

  • De-clutter every quarter
Failed. In my defense, I haven't amassed unnecessary stuff this year. My purchases were kept at a minimum all-year round, so while I do still need to do some de-cluttering, it wasn't exactly imperative.

  • I must be able to do 100 push ups––in one set––by the end of the year.
Failed. I can only do 40 straight.

  • Be more demonstrative in my appreciation of other people; constantly give positive feedback
I'll leave my friends and colleagues to be the judge of this.

  • Master the art of tolerance––not everything is about me or pertains to me. It's not about me unless you categorically address it to me; otherwise, dedma!
Done, with flying colors. See #1.

  • Use my Fisheye 2 again: develop one roll each month
FAILED! I haven't finished my roll from 2011!

  • Write at least one feature article a month

  • I want to do more for the Pinoy LGBT community
Failed :-{

A belated resolution I made was to be debt-free and always pay my credit card balance in full every due date. I am proud to say I paid my bank not a single cent of interest fee the entire year. They must hate me, lol.

Okay, so that's 4/10, lol. But owing to the first and last resolutions, I really think I became a better person in 2012 :-D

For 2013, I will:

  • Continue to not sweat the small stuff.
  • Continue to read one book a month. My roster has to include an English classic, a nonfiction, Filipino literature, and a book published in 2013.
  • Write outside of work once a week—whether handwritten notes, a feature story, an entry in my blog, or journal.
  • Watch a TED video and read a More Intelligent Life article at least once a week.
  • Enroll in a class—any will do.
  • 100 push ups, let’s do this.
  • Spend the weekend at my parents’ at least once every quarter.
  • Taste a different bottle of wine every month.
This year, I've also chosen a word which will serve as my theme and inspiration for my choices: spring. 

To rise, leap, act, move swiftly; to be released from a constrained position; to come into being by growth.

Happy New Year!

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